Beyonce Knowles and the Looming Crisis at the UN

UNESCO member states are poised to admit Palestine as the newest member of the UN body. This is an achievement for the Palestinian leadership, which is seeking admission to various UN agencies, but potentially catastrophic news for UNESCO and American leadership at the UN. And through no fault of her own, even Beyonce may suffer.

At issue here are two strict laws passed by the United States congress in 1994 which stipulate that “the United States shall not make any voluntary or assessed contribution to any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.”  And if that were not clear enough, a second clause clearly states that the United States may not “provide funds [to] the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.”  The law authorizes no “waiver authority” by the executive branch, meaning that there is no way for President Obama to end run around this prohibition.

In other words, if UNESCO admits Palestine as a member, the United States will be forced to effectively withdraw from the organization. That would be a huge financial blow to UNESCO, which receives 22% of its budget ($80 million) in dues payments from the United States. With that money, UNESCO promotes world press freedom, is the lead UN agency for the implementation of  the Millennium Development Goal number 2 (universal primary eduction) and administers the World Heritage site program, among other things.

But the effect would be felt far beyond UNESCO. Several smaller UN agencies — including World Intellectual Property Organization, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the UN Conference on Trade and Development — tie their own membership to other UN agencies. This means that when one UN agency accepts a new member, these three UN agencies automatically accept the new member as well. Once UNESCO admits Palestine, these other UN agencies will automatically admit Palestine as well…and the United States will be forced to automatically pull out.

Most Americans probably have not heard of these agencies. But I know at least one American who has heard of the World Intellectual Property Organization: Beyonce Knowles. In 2010, Beyonce brought a complaint before WIPO alleging that an online perfume vendor  using the domain name was a “cyber-squatter” who is violating her trademark.  She won the case.

Beyond Beyonce, WIPO has adjudicated hundreds of complaints of cybersquatting by well known American companies and brands.Here’s just a sample from 2010 of cyber-squatting complaints brought before WIPO:

In just a few weeks time, the United States may be forced to pull out of WIPO.  This does not mean WIPO will cease to exist, but it does mean that the United States will lose its seat at the table when it makes big decisions on setting global standards for intellectual property rights. I would imagine that any of the hundreds of American companies who have turned to WIPO when their rights were violated would be pleased that the United States is abandoning the agency.

“If the United States  is not a member of WIPO than our ability to influence debate over these standards and also represent American interests in the contexts of adjudication is limited,” says Peter Yeo, Director of the Better World Campaign*. “It’s like not paying your condo association fees. If you want a security upgrade or to put a hot-tub on your roof, no one will listen to you if you don’t pay your membership dues.”

This issue reaches far beyond UNESCO and WIPO. The Palestinian leadership has been adamant about joining any UN body that will take them as a member. Most UN bodies decide on its membership by a two thirds vote of its current members.  As most countries around the world are on record in support of Palestinian statehood, two-thirds is a threshold that the Palestinians could probably attain rather easily.

The World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Atomic Energy Association are just a few well-known UN agencies from which the United States would be forced to withdraw should they grant Palestine full membership. Others include the International Civil Aviation Authority (which sets global standards for commercial air traffic and helps train air traffic controllers); the International Maritime Organization, and the International Telecommunications Union, among others.

It goes without saying just how inimical it is to American interests to have this kind of automatic trigger. (Is it really in American interests to cease supporting monitoring of nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea because Palestine joins the IAEA?)  It also  makes the United States look petty and childish. But, alas, it is the law of the land. And given the current contentious legislative environment, it is highly unlikely that it will be amended anytime soon.

So what is to be done?

At this point, the best hope lies in finding some sort of diplomatic solution that acknowledges the Palestinian’s legitimate aspirations to join these organizations as full members, but does not trigger the automatic American withdrawal from these agencies.  “It is imperative that our diplomats find a creative way out of this conundrum to protect American interests,” says Peter Yeo. “And it has to happen fast.”

The vote for Membership to UNESCO is scheduled for the first week of November. There is a flurry of diplomatic activity behind the scenes to avoid the nightmare scenario in which the United States would be forced to rapidly pull out of several important UN entities. But it is far from certain that these efforts will succeed.

Perhaps the best hope is that diplomats buy some time and business interests, including the tech and entertainment industries,  lean on Congress to amend the law.  Unless we want to live in a world in which Beyonce’s good name is sullied by an associated with sub-par perfume; or more seriously, in which the IAEA can no longer afford to monitor North Korean nuclear provocations then something needs to give. And fast.


*The Better World Campaign is a program of the UN Foundation, which supports this blog.